By Helen Xu Fei
In China, tea made exclusively from Camellia Sinensis is grouped into six classifications based on processing methods. The six basic categories are green, oolong (known as qing cha in Chinese, qing is a color in between blue and green), red, white, yellow and black.
Among them, the red and the black tea often cause confusion to non-Chinese speaking consumers. What the Chinese classified as red tea (hong cha in Chinese) is commonly known as black tea in the English speaking world, while the Chinese black tea (hei cha in Chinese) is a post-fermented tea. As indicated by the Chinese names, hong cha has bright reddish liquid, and hei cha produces a dark brownish liquid.
Chinese black tea was and is mainly produced for northwest ethic-minority market, where people’s main diet is red meat, dairy products and salty milky tea. There are quite a few varieties in this category, but are usually in compressed forms and feature a unique earthy character. Chinese black tea did not get much attention from mainstream tea consumers until the puerh tea boom as ripened puerh (shu pu in Chinese) belongs to the group. ‘Piling’ is a unique treatment for these teas, during which damped leaves are collected into a big pile to sit for a period of time ranging from one day to a few weeks. Such a treatment induces microbial fermentation and other physiochemical reactions in the tea. Properly ‘piled’ tea will have darker leaf color and liquid color, turn more round-mouthed and develop the signature “earthy” or nutty flavor.
1000 tael tea is the most jumbo type of Chinese black tea. As indicated by the name, it weighs 1,000 tael (about 36.25kg). The tea is in the shape of a column, with a length of 1.5 -1.6 meters and a diameter around 0.2 meters. It is a native produce of Anhua county in north central Hunan province. Anhua is one of the few Chinese black tea origins, and by the end of the 16th century it rose to be a busy production center for Hunan province’s Chinese black tea. Beside 1000 tael tea, other Chinese black tea produced there include floral brick (hua zhuan), black brick (hei zhuan) and summer brick (fu zhuan). To date, 30% of Hunan tea is Chinese black tea, and 50% of the country’s Chinese black tea is produced by Hunan province.
The production of 1000 tael tea is rather complicated and very tedious. The knowhow was for many years confined to a few families in the business. In 1952, Baishaxi Tea Plant took on the production of this tea as the tea industry was centralized. However, few years after the takeover, 1000 tael tea ceased to be produced as both its consumption and production were quite troublesome. In 1983, to salvage the knowledge of the now aged masters, Baishaxi Tea Plant re-invited them back to coach a new generation of 1000 tael tea makers. In 1997, the plant resumed production. Since its return, the market for 1000 tael tea is no longer the northwest minorities, but puerh lovers in Guangdong, Southeast Asia and Korea.
Production of 1000 tael tea involves 23 steps. The whole process can be divided into two phases: production of loose leaf Chinese black tea and formation of the tea column.
In the first phase, full grown leaves including short stalks are harvested, heated, rolled and collected into a pile.. The pile of tea will be sitting for 24 hours or so under controlled room temperature and humidity and will be turned once in the process to allow even fermentation. When the tea reaches the required post-fermentation level, it is re-rolled and then fully dried over a pine wood fire. Dried tea is cooled, bagged and stocked as loose leaf Chinese black tea, the raw material for 1000 tael tea and other Hunan hei cha.
In the second phase, loose leaf Chinese black tea is weighed, cut, sieved, sorted and blended to reach the desired specification. After that, an exact amount of the tea is steamed and manually made into solid columns through pressing, wringing, rolling and hammering. The columns are closely wrapped with leaves of a local broad-leaf weed and palm sheets and tightly crated with bamboo slices. These packed columns are labeled and put on outdoor racks to air for around seven weeks.
1000 tael tea can age like most Chinese black tea. The package (the bamboo crate, the palm sheets and the weed leaves) forms an integral part and plays an important role in aging. Due to its intense density and water-resistant wrappings, the tea ages very slowly. Aged 1000 tael teas are often sawed into discs of tea cakes for sale while young ones are sold whole. Young tea can be consumed immediately, yet if the package was broken and the tea was sawed, the remaining parts can not achieve the same ideal aging effects as unopened ones. To cater for consumers who want to drink young tea and store unopened ones for perfect ageing, 100 tael (3.62 kg) and 10 tael (362.5 g) teas are produced, and for convenient consumption, single serve small cubes are also available.
Beside the characteristic earthy flavor, 1000 tael tea has a smoky note and a subtle hint of Chinese rice ale. Like wine, young or aged 1000 tael tea caters for different palate preferences, but due to carrying cost and risks of failure in ageing, aged ones are more expensive than young ones. Generally, aged tea is much smoother and more round-mouthed, while young ones retains a sharper smoky tone and are relatively more astringent and intense.
There are several brewing methods to appreciate the tea. The most classic one is salty milky tea. Put 10-15 grams of tea into a tea kettle, pour boiling water to just cover the tea and soak a little while. Add 1-1.5 liters of cold water and bring to the boil, strain the tea liquid and mix with one fifth of its volume of milk, add salt to taste. Pure tea lovers can drink without adding milk, and they may dab a little salt to bring out the subtle sweetness.
Chinese tea lovers usually like to steep the tea in hot water. Pick five grams of tea for each person, pour boiling water (6-8 ounces per person) over it, cover the pot with a lid and steep for 2-3 minutes, then strain out the tea liquid to serve. The same tea can be brewed for several rounds with shorter steeping times. Each round possesses different mouth-feel and liquid color. In summer time, the strained liquid can be chilled to make iced tea.
1000 tael tea contains more dietary fibers and tea polysaccharides but less caffeine than other categories of Chinese tea. Its coarser plucking standard and unique piling treatment are major causes leading to such differences. Some outstanding health benefits of the tea include: promoting digestion, reducing absorption of fat, accelerating fat burning, stimulating bowel movement and regulating blood sugar and blood lipid level.
Traditionally, Chinese black tea was a strategic commodity in the famous ‘Tea Horse Barter’ trade of ancient times whereby the Chinese acquired military horses while pacifying the northwest border minorities.
“Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one day” is a well known proverb among the people that indicates the pivotal importance of the tea to their daily life. It was the major alkaline food that they consumed to neutralize their typical nomadic diet which was packed with red meat but had no vegetables or fruit. You may therefore want to include Chinese black tea in you BBQ shopping list to offset the effects of so much red meat…